Missing objects and silenced voices: Power relations in online conferences (Bing Lu)

In this post Bing Lu contemplates the new framework of power constituted in online conferences and calls to all conference community members to consider creative ways of practicing inclusive conferencing online.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Covid-19 pandemic has redefined the age we are living in. Within the discourse of academic conferencing, like in many other social sectors, a ‘new normal’ has been established and accepted, such as getting access to the conference through an earlier saved Zoom link, choosing whether to keep the camera on or not, and deciding the appropriate time to participate in a discussion or quietly sneak out of the virtual room. Academic conferences, which used to be ‘bodily experiences’ often involving much travel to the venue and embarrassing conversations with unfamiliar others, is now becoming a space where a new framework of power is being constituted.

This framework reinforces the hierarchy in academia and requires junior members of the community to exercise much agency in engaging in the content of conferences and in the conversations with others.

The purpose I have in writing this blog post is to challenge the new norms underlying the virtual form of conference as a given.

Instead, I suggest what is required is  serious contemplation as to how conference attendees co-construct, deconstruct and reconstruct various professional identities. To meet this goal, I turn to poststructuralist scholarship to read the new reality of academic conferences as sites of cultural encounters and forms of academic identity. Through a review of my own experiences of attending four online academic conferences by different organizers over the past 11 months, from the first national lockdown launched in the UK in March 2020 until the second lockdown implemented in January 2021, I attempt to explain my own observations of these conferences from the perspective of identity formation, based on some prior literature. 

Pre-pandemic: co-constructing identity in conference

In an book titled ‘Any Questions? : Identity Construction in Academic Conference Discussions’, a group of researchers discussed how academic conferences construct participants’ identity by employing relevant theories in symbolic interactionism and members’ construction of reality. By analyzing recorded conference discussions focusing on linguistic strategies people used, the authors demonstrated how conference participants co-constructed their professional identity  in interactions with each other through a bundle of social and institutional rules.

Coming from a symbolic interactionism tradition, the authors highlighted the two realities humans live in, one is physical and objective and the other is social. Symbolic objects are physical objects which may represent something else; for example, in academic conferences, the lunch break area can become a site for small talk or carrying on further discussion with the speaker if people want to use that area for more than grabbing some coffee or food. These conventional and somewhat arbitrary symbols grant people a sense of inclusion. In this sense, it is hard to ignore how those ‘objects’ construct a sense of identity in traditional academic conference; forms you have to sign on your arrival, big screen for slides, presenting area for the speaker, and seating area for the audience, all these objects distinguishing academic conferences as distinct from other places for human interaction.

In the post-pandemic world, when everyone is ‘beamed up and down’ through Zoom links like a teleporter to virtual rooms, are those objects still ‘objective’ or are they replaced by some other non-physical ‘objects’? What does that mean?

Post-pandemic: deconstruction and reconstruction

Since most academic gatherings have been carried out online recently, many objects people used to take for granted in a conference site have simply disappeared. In an online chat with an academic working in a US-based institute, she told me that ‘she started to miss those bad coffees at conferences’. The disappearance of traditional nodes of bringing people together, like a coffee pot or seats around a table, has silenced many voices in academic conferences.

The most obvious example is  Zoom conferences, where everyone is routinely ‘muted’ by the organizer unless they are allowed to speak.

The silencing created by the virtual form of conferences (and the technological capabilities of Zoom in particular) invites some deconstructive work to understand ‘the unspoken and intentionally silenced’. In other words, my observation of the conference is mainly on interpreting the meaning of members’ silence rather than how they communicate verbally. Arguably, norms established in virtual conferences create invisible walls preventing many voices. 

I identify two types of power creating these walls: acquaintance power and authority power.

Acquaintance power. In virtual conferences, some members tend to greet each other or start to talk casually  with those they knew before; sometimes this can make other newcomers feel left out. That being said, in face-to-face conferences, the ‘warmth’ some people feel can be experienced as ‘cool’ by those who aren’t known. However, less well-known attendees have more opportunities to socialize with each other through a polite smile or nodding. In my experience,  it is rarely the case that strangers initiate interaction with each other in a virtual conference at the beginning, and they may keep silent throughout the process. 

Authority power comes from the presenters whose authority allows them much flexibility in delivering a speech, an authority which is rarely challenged by the audience. In the four academic conferences I have attended, there were several senior presenters who simply ‘talked through’ their ideas or read out some text to the camera without any explaining slides. This created additional difficulties for junior members of the conference to follow; for those who use English as a second/foreign language (myself as an example), slides help them gain access (see related post by Michael Guest). Critically, a delivery without slides appears to me to be somewhat casual and underprepared. In traditional conferences in my field, it is hard to imagine a presenter standing there and talking with no slides. In a recent published article, ‘The pandemic push: can COVID-19 reinvent conferences to models rooted in sustainability, equitability and inclusion?’,  the authors also identified that online communication could increase difficulties for inexperienced or minority community members to engage in the global network established by online conferences.

These underlying power dynamics may obstruct the attendees co-constructing their conference identity with many others; instead, the power deconstructs and reconstructs participants’ conference identity with respect to the new interaction norms.

The virtual form of academic conferences creates new inequities, as seen in this post from the largely silenced voices and disappearing objects. This blog post purposefully draws attention to unspoken, naturalized processes of identity performance within the new interaction norms. As Judith Butler (2011) notes, performativity is not a singular ‘act’, but is always a reiteration of a set of norms.

This post is a call to conference community members to attend to the potential formation of new power structures in online conferences, and for us all to consider creative ways of practicing inclusive conferencing online.

About Bing Lu

Bing Lu is currently a doctoral researcher in Department for Education Studies (DES) at University of Warwick and the co-convenor of the department’s research seminar series. Her doctoral research investigates how returned doctorate holders conduct doctoral supervision in their home countries. Her main research area is in exploring the transnational flows of highly-skilled intellectuals and the global picture of doctoral supervision under the influence of the moving bodies and minds. She recently published the book review titled ‘Asia inside out: itinerant people’ in the 2021 Volume 51 Issue 3 of Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. Here’s where she can be found on Twitter: @BingluAlice

7 thoughts on “Missing objects and silenced voices: Power relations in online conferences (Bing Lu)”

  1. Thank you for your interesting analysis. I have now been to two conferences on line plus have two more coming up shortly. I have also attended various webinars and seminars and courses. The latter have the compensation of not having to travel anywhere, but for the conferences, travel was part of the experience. I too see power dimensions in these activities but not always the ones that you might expect. I am thinking of the so-called digital divide and an age-related divide over confidence with technology. As a chair of a symposium, I have been asked to do a number of (incomprehensible) things about organizing, recording, uploading, video-chatting, etc. that are not in my older-person confidence zone. Normally organizing a symposium might be an effort but chairing it just means watching the clock.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your inspiring point Sandra. I think it’s a great point you mentioned about how the online form challenges older-person confidence zone. I also notice that as an issue in my talk with some older supervisors, who kind of struggling to get adapted to this new role facilitated by enough awareness of tech stuff. Once in a conference I listened to an early-career supervisor presenting about how ‘quickly’ supervisors can adapt to this online change in her department and find the new changes quite ‘exciting’. I posed a question at the end asking her if the supervisors she talked to are all younger supervisors. She was a bit surprised by this question and admitted that she did not personally hear any struggling voices. I’m so pleased that my doubt at the time was confirmed here by you, and I definitely agree that technology can be a ‘threat’ to older people in some situations. Thanks again Sandra.


  2. Thank you for your insight into this phenomenon. The way you express the significance of silence is particularly sensitive and thought provoking. As I read your post, I’m recalling why I felt a pressure to have a well stocked book case over my shoulder in the background, or a fancy art piece? The power of identity you evoke in your article shows the multi-faceted and nuanced nature of participation and belonging – thank you for writing this.


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